This morning, my mother, Aldona Simutytė Sruoginienė, sent a photo of our close friend, Nijolė Bražėnaitė Lukšienė Paronetto, holding her book of post-World War II love letters written to Juozas Lukša, a leader of the anti-Soviet resistance, who broke through the Iron Curtain to the West in 1949 and returned on a CIA espionage mission to Lithuania in 1951. In Soviet occupied Lithuania he was betrayed by his friend and fellow resistance fighter, Jonas Kukauskas, and killed in a Soviet ambush in September 1951. This young couple, deeply in love, corresponded faithfully daily for two years while Juozas Lukša lived in hiding in Paris and Nijolė was sequestered in a sanatorium in Sancellemoz, France, recovering from tuberculosis. They were married for only one week in July 1950, before Juozas departed on his mission to Lithuania in the Autumn of 1950, never to return.
The idea to publish the book Apie anuos nepamirštamus laikus: Juozo Lukšos-Daumanto ir Nijolės Bražėnaitės Susirašinėjimas (Those Unforgettable Years: The Correspondence of Juozas Lukša-Daumatas and Nijolė Bražėnaitė) was conceived together with Nijolė. We had been dreaming about this book for so many years, which we perceive as Nijolė's legacy to Lithuania. Nijolė, who is now 98, was extremely happy to finally hold her book in her hands. When together with her nephews, Andrius and Algis Vaitiekūnas, we called her in New York after the first book presentation in Vilnius, Lithuania, she cried. All of us, Nijolė, my mother, and I, are grateful to the diplomat Gitana Skripkaitė, who became a member of our community while serving at the Lithuanian Consulate General in New York, for organizing sending Nijolė the newly published book, signed by the President of Lithuania, to New York in the suitcase of a diplomat accompanying the president to New York for United Nations Week. Nijolė’s family and our family would like to thank Gitana for her sensitive gesture. Nijolė has been looking forward to the publication of this book since we began working on it two years ago in 2019.
When I spoke on the phone with Nijolė Bražėnaitė in New York, she told me she is happy that I published her and Juozas Lukša's book of love letters. She appreciates that she has been given the opportunity to share what is most precious in her heart with Lithuania, and especially with young people. However, for a long time Nijolė felt nervous about publishing her love letters openly, and I was nervous. Readers, be gentle. Try to imagine how painful it is to release such intimate personal letters into the world, how hard it is to reveal to the public the most beautiful and your most painful days of your youth.
Nijolė and I would like to thank the President of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda for his forward to the book. When I read the President's words to Nijole over the phone a week ago, she told me, "Laima, if you ever meet the President in person, please pass on to me that his words about mine and Juozas’s letters encouraged me that I did the right thing by sharing them."
For a long time, I battled with my own conscience over whether I did the right thing by publishing Nijolė’s letters to Juozas, given to me for safekeeping, publicly in a book. However, when the Lithuanian-American historian Saulius Sužiedėlis said to me in a conversation that I have a responsibility to publish these historical letters because they reflect the idealism and the challenges of the postwar period, I began to believe that there comes a time when something that is deeply personal transforms into history, and history belongs to the nation.
Nijolė wanted to burn her letters. Juozas told her to burn his love letters before he left on his mission. Yet, neither of them could bring themselves to burn each other’s letters and the letters survived for posterity. She entrusted her letters to me. Her trust in me grew out of our many years of friendship. I accepted Nijolė's trust in me to publish her letters, and Juozas’s letters, together as a great responsibility and an expression of our friendship.
For years I explained to Nijolė that her letters should be published together with Juozas’s in one book. However, she was reluctant. Recently, Nijolė has received offers from writers to create novels, musical theater, feature films, etc. from her and Juozas’s love story. However, as a retired medical doctor and pathologist, Nijolė is a rational person. She trusts facts and not fantasies. Such ideas worry her because she felt any fictionalizations of their story would be a distortion of what was true, or at best an interpretation. It seemed to me that the most appropriate solution would be to publish her book of letters with an academic publishing house. Therefore, I offered to her to publish the letters with the Lithuanian Institute of Literature and Folklore. In 2019 she agreed, provided we wrote an introductory article together and revealed to readers all the details of their love story - how the letters were saved by the Lithuanian-American secretary working for the CIA just before Juozas left on his mission, how we unexpectedly found Eleonora Labanauskienė in 2006 , who together with her husband, Vincas Labanauskas, hid Juozas Lukšas and Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas in a bunker in their home for six months from 1950 to 1951. Vincas Labanauskas was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in a prison camp in Siberia for hiding Juozas Lukša. His wife, Eleonora was interrogated and tortured for six months. Nijolė and I traveled to Lithuania together to visit the Labanauskas family in 2006. Nijolė met Eleonora and they spoke together about those “unforgettable years.” For over half a century she'd had no knowledge of how her husband had spent the last year of his young life - he died when he was barely 30.
Nijolė herself was actively involved in the creation of the book. I can’t even remember how many times we talked on the phone during the pandemic as she shared with me her memories of the war and post-war era and details of her relationship with Juozas. I was surprised to learn about things she hadn’t told me about before… While a student in Berlin, she was arrested by the Nazis for her activities in a Lithuanian anti-Nazi resistance organization. The Nazis threatened to shoot her while holding her for interrogation in a room. She had been receiving communications exposing Nazi crimes of the Holocaust from Lithuania mailed to her inside loaves of bread. One time, someone came up with the clever idea of hiding the anti-Nazi newsletter in a block of butter. In the mail from Lithuania to Berlin, Germany, the butter melted and the plot was exposed. She escaped with her life by just a hair.
I read every word of this book to Nijolė either over the phone or in person this summer at her home in New York. Nijolė’s vision is extremely poor, so reading aloud is a normal part of our communication.
I am grateful to the Lithuanian Culture Council for funding the publication of the book. Without their financial support, this book would not exist. I am grateful to the Institute of Lithuanian Literary Folklore for publishing the book. I am extremely grateful to the editor Danuta Kalinauskaitė. Danutė read and edited the letters of Nijolė and Juozas, editing so as to preserve the authentic tone of the language of that time period. Danutė also edited my introductory article, "My dearest Juozuk." I know that took a lot of work because Lithuanian is not my mother tongue. Danutė kept my authentic American Lithuanian mannerism while at the same time adapting my language to standard Lithuanian language usage. Thank you to Rokas Gelažis for his design of the book, for going with me to the Juozas Lukša-Daumantas Gymnasium Museum to photograph the original letters and Juozas and Nijolė's wedding album. I am grateful to the historian and political scientist Kęstutis Girnis for the article, "The Extraordinary Partisan." When I read the article to Nijole, she was surprised at how many details about Juozas’s mission were revealed to her after so many years. I am grateful to Vidmantas Vitkauskas, the director of Juozas Lukša-Daumantas Gymnasium, who kindly forwarded Juozas Lukša's letters and allowed me to print them in this book. Also, Vidmantas shared photos that are part of the Gymnasium Museum collection. I would like to thank all the staff of the Institute who contributed to the preparation of this book.
Laima Vincė and Nijolė Bražėnaitė-Lukšienė-Paronetto celebrate the publication of the book.
Nijolė, age 98, says that it has been a deeply powerful experience for her to slowly read through the love letters she wrote to the leader of the anti-Soviet resistance, Juozas Lukša, over seventy years ago, and to read his letters in response. "Juozas was a very good man and a decent person. We were truly deeply in love," Nijolė said to me. Despite the challenges of macular degeneration, she has slowly and methodically read through all the letters. My mother and I also visit with her and read to her out loud.
Nijolė proudly shows me Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda's inscription in her book.